Asya AlJabri's first steps toward app building started with dyslexia: not her own, but her 9-year-old cousin's. AlJabri was trying to teach him the alphabet, but he wasn't learning, and she kept scolding him for not paying attention. "I won't forget what he said," recalls the 22-year-old computer science student from Muscat, Oman. He really was trying, her cousin pleaded. He just couldn't understand why everything felt so hard to grasp. His speech moved her to tears—and to action. She took her cousin to get tested for dyslexia and then started thinking about how she herself could help. AlJabri rounded up two of her fellow students and together they created an app called ReadX, which helps dyslexic children learn and lets parents keep track of their progress. The app was good enough to win a national Imagine Cup, a Microsoft-sponsored student competition; that earned AlJabri and her friends—Marwa AlHabsi and Safa Almukhaini, both 22—a spot representing Oman in the international Imagine Cup, July 8 to July 11 in St. Petersburg, Russia.
At the Cup—which brings together teams from 71 countries with the goal of helping to solve tough global issues—the Omani team was in many ways just like the rest of the competitors, eager technology students hoping to launch careers and change the world. But they were different in one significant respect: They're all women. AlJabri and her friends were one of just three all-female teams competing in Russia; another one came from a Gulf neighbor, Qatar. (The third was a one-woman team from Portugal.) Both Oman and Qatar fielded all-women teams last year as well.
During the event, many attendees were surprised that these female-centric teams came from the Arab world. The young women, however, saw nothing unusual. "We really didn't think about it until we came and everyone was surprised," says Latifa Al-Naimi, 20. She and her teammates from Qatar University developed Artouch, a device that allows museum-goers to connect with artifacts on exhibit. They got the idea after watching Qatar pour resources into art collecting and museum investment, led by Sheika al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, chair of the Qatar Museums Authority and sister of Qatar's emir.
At Qatar University, both her computer science and computer engineering classes have more women than men, notes Al-Naimi's teammate Amna Al-Kaabi, 20. "I don't find any difference between being in an all-girl team or all guys or mixed," she says.
Over the past decade, Qatar's and Oman's governments have invested heavily in both girls' education and STEM fields in general: science, technology, engineering, and math."There is a big push to improve the quality of education, particularly around subjects that are seen as important for the post–hydrocarbon economy," says Isobel Coleman, author of Youthquake, an upcoming book on education reform in the Middle East.
The young women competing in St. Petersburg say they can't remember school without computers and computer science classes, and some found their interest sparked even further when they were taught to code in high school.
Many women in the region continue to face structural obstacles in the corporate world and conservative families at home. Child rearing and domestic duties are still considered female domains, and it's rare to see women in the boardroom. Female labor participation rates still hover below 30% in Oman compared to 82% for men, despite the fact that women are rapidly nearing men's education levels. Still, the Gulf states are far less restrictive than neighboring Saudi Arabia, where women can't drive (though they can, and do, start businesses).
And things are changing in some parts of the Middle East. The Gulf states are "the only place in the world I know of where women outperform men in the STEM subjects," says Coleman. "I think you are going to see more women entrepreneurs coming out of that part of the world."
While neither of the Gulf's all-female teams won a prize in the Imagine Cup, the competitors all say that they hope to become entrepreneurs. The biggest challenge might just be foreigners' misconceptions about women's lives in their countries. "I am really surprised how people are surprised, because it is a normal thing with us," says Safa Almukhaini of Oman, who has plans to pursue a computer science–related master's and then open her own technology firm. "It [will be] challenging, but it is achievable. The environment has been prepared for women to do whatever they want."
In June, CNet senior editor Dan Ackerman tweeted the above photo from the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco. The image, which captures an endless line of bro-grammers waiting for the bathroom without a woman in sight, blew up online. "It just took off," says Ackerman. "It was interesting to see a lot of people finding resonance in it, although I certainly didn't mean it in a big declarative way." It wasn't the first time somebody used loo lines to note the scarcity of female attendees. In 2007, CodingClan cofounder Kitt Hodsden (currently a senior web developer at Phase2 Technology) tweeted this from South by Southwest: "laughing, once again, at the line of 20 guys at the restroom as I dash in with no line. Sometimes tech conferences are wonderful." The humor points to a serious issue. "I went to male-dominated Caltech and believed merit triumphs over any kind of gender issue," says Hodsden. "I've learned that's not the case."
The situation may be improving. Google recently announced a scholarship to send women to European industry events, and conferences such as Confident Coding and GDG DevFest are more female-friendly. "Women find and support each other," says Hodsden. "Recognition of the issue is the first step to fixing it, so I'm hopeful. I actually had to wait in line for the bathroom for the first time at one recent event, and I kind of laughed at that." —Iona Holloway
Editor's Note: A previous version of the story incorrectly identified the first woman mentioned as Safa Almukhaini. In addition, the photo caption misidentified the woman pictured in the middle as Almukhaini. We regret the error.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2013 issue of Fast Company magazine.